Hope: Conferences in Lima

Update: In hindsight, I believe I misunderstood the Rabbi. Jed indicated that he may have been referring to the fact that all religions are struggling with that issue, whereas on other issues we are not all struggling. Anyway, I figured I’d mention that here. My reactions and struggles with my misinterpretation are still real though, so I left the post unedited.

So in the last week, I have attended to conferences here in Lima, one on the way the youth can combat climate change and the other on pluralism and interreligious life in Peru. I’ve learned a lot and have met some highly interesting people, which has been great. And I am hopeful this is a sign of the overall upswing yet to come here in Lima.

I just wanted to touch on the conferences a bit and my reflections.

First was the environmental conference at a Methodist seminary that I attended with Jed. The conference brought together youth from various churches in Lima (and a few other areas) to discuss ways they can be active to combat climate change on an individual level. Generally, I did not learn new strategies, but I learned a substantial amount from Jed’s presentation on ecotheology.

I’ve mentioned ecotheology before and the general idea seemed believable, but I hadn’t learned much about it. Jed walked us through it and as often is this case with new theological interpretations, I smacked myself on the head wandering why I’d never put those interpretations together myself.

For example, Jed brought up the call Jesus gave to his disciples to go out and tell the good news to all of creation, instead of all people. In Greek, that literally translates to all creatures. It doesn’t take much stretching to get the sense that instead of preaching to nature, one should treat it with care. One of those meanings that’s hidden in plain sight til it’s revealed. Now I can’t miss it.

Moving on from that Jed uncovered several other examples like the command in Genesis to care for all nature, that all beings that breath are called to praise God in Psalm 150, that “the glory of God fills all the earth (Isaiah 6:3), and many other examples.

The best bit about ecotheology is it is the best counter to politicians like chairman of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, Sen. Jim Inhofe (R-OK), who said, “My point is, God’s still up there. The arrogance of people to think that we, human beings, would be able to change what He is doing in the climate is to me outrageous” in 2012.

My response has always been: “You’re doing religion wrong,” but that’s not constructive. Ecotheology, gives a more constructive counter-interpretation to offer.

Anyway, it was a great lesson to take from that conference. And even better, I got a super fly certificate of participation to hang on my wall. Or keep as a souvenir or something. We’ll see.

The next conference at the Universidad Antonio Ruiz de Montoya: La Universidad Jesuita del Perú on pluralism was fascinating as an outsider. The conference featured a panel of a sociologist of religion, Catalina Romero, one Rabbi Guillermo Bronstein, and Father Ernesto Cavassa. Before each spoke there was a lengthy, seriously lengthy introduction of their various accolades and achievements, highlighting that these were not just chumps off the street. No, they definitely knew their way around the interfaith block and were all proponents of faiths in dialogue.

Romero opened up with a presentation on religion in Latin America, which unlike the western world has diversified instead of secularized. Mainly, Catholicism has been on a steady decline in every Latin American country while the many Protestant traditions have been spiking. Likewise, Judaism, Islam, Baha’i and Buddhism have some followers.

The topic has, I realized, some notable importance as Peru was the site of a Catholic Inquisition, similar to that found in Spain. And this past Tuesday a plaque was dedicated to recognize and memorialize the loss from that event here in Lima.

Yet, Peru is still struggling with religious diversity and pluralism. Rabbi Bronstein cited that a recent law in Peru allows religions with more than 10,000 registered believers to make special deals with the government to celebrate their rites and traditions. This could include a reduction in tariffs for the importation of sacramental wine or maybe matzoh for Passover.

Unfortunately, like any attempt to put limits on what constitutes a religion, the minimum number of believers is impractical and discriminatory. Judaism has about 3,000 followers, while there are only 600 Muslims, and less of many other religions. The point is, it’s a failed bit of policy and the Rabbi stated we must move forward with dialogue to reform practical issues like this, in addition to working towards peace.

Peace was a major theme and foundational reason for interreligious dialogue stated by all three panelists.

The final panelist was a Catholic priest who offered an interpretation of Ignatian spirituality of which, like most of Ignatius’ writings, I was ignorant. Specifically, he cited a bit of Ignatius’ writings with the claim that all life is to praise God and religious is just a path. Specifically, “religion is not absolute, but just a walk.” Religion is not an end in itself, but God is.

Therefore, religions should not attack one another, but engage with one another. We can believe, but we must also understand that others believe their own traditions just as strongly as us and that may be part of God’s end. The appropriate response then, is to engage in dialogue.

You can bet I loved that.

Of course, I was also challenged by the conference. Specifically, questions were raised on abortion and gay marriage. I’ve made clear how I feel on that issue, so I won’t go into that here.

Instead, I’ll mention a response by the Rabbit that surprised me.

He stated fairly clearly that in regards to marriage, “We are all in the same boat with what the Bible says. Still we must talk about it.” He went on to discuss how he did not like a stance by the Catholic church of Peru to avoid conversations on premarital sex, abortion, and homosexuality in sex education classes. I agree with him that the Catholic Church appears in the wrong there, but I was disturbed by his initial comment.

He did not elaborate on what “boat” we were in exactly, but I felt I could infer. Perhaps in that room I was the lone person with my beliefs on all-gender marriage, but the point is we’re not all in the same boat. And it bothers me that he either is unaware of other theological interpretations or does not offer them any credence.

I don’t fault any of the panelists of the university for that, but it was challenging for me. And I am grateful to the panelists and University for the opportunity to grapple with the socio-theological treatment of sexuality within Peru. I just couldn’t let this moment go unmentioned in my blog, because it stuck with me the most out of all the panel.

And that feels good in its own way. I’m finding new challenges and intellectual stimulation that I really felt I lacked in Ayacucho. I was worried that the comforts of a bigger cosmopolitan area, like Lima, would detract from my growth in Peru, but if experiences like these conferences continue, I’ve got nothing to worry about.

Site change, blog change

So not only did I change sites in my move from Ayacucho to Lima, but I also decided to change my blog up a bit.

The original title of this blog was Kyle Ayacuchupi, which reflected my time in Ayacucho. I’m no longer there, so I have decided to change the blog title. I thought on this one a lot and may be working through a few titles, but I finally decided on: Fair Trade, Free Trade: A YAV Year.

It’s not as catchy as the first, but it captures my YAV year very well. Plus, I’m fascinated by this juxtaposition. Other than the alliterative nature of the descriptors, I am caught up in the contrast they provide. In practice, free trade is often far from equitable, while fair trade adds regulation and restrictions to flow of trade. Yet on paper there’s really no reason these couldn’t be the same thing.

The issue is that economic theory does not have much to say about what is fair or unfair. The study of economics is positive, the concept of equity and fairness is normative. That is to say, economics aims (not always successfully) to say how it is, while equity and fairness come out of an opinion. We need both for various reasons and it frustrates me to see them cast as mutual exclusive.

So I’m going to spend a lot of time working through these themes and questions. For example, does fair trade make-up for the unfair allocations that cause unfair outcomes of free trade? Can the two coexist? How much does fair trade inhibit standard market mechanisms of classic economics? Can fair trade principles move beyond markets for non-essential purchases to operate in all commodity markets? And many more as they arise.

Given the emphasis in these subjects, this seems a perfectly appropriate blog title. I may attempt to spice it up with time, while maintaining the core theme though. We’ll see.

Otherwise, I’m hoping to maintain a similar blog. I took a brief hiatus in the last week or so following my departure from Ayacucho. The decision to leave was a complex one and required some notable self-reflection. I needed some time to rethink my blog. I needed time to rethink my place in Peru. I needed time to remind myself of my call here. I had that and I came to a realization.

Overall, this move was for the best and offers some amazing new opportunities for a fresh start in Peru. The title change, though symbolic, reflects that opportunity. Perhaps, I’m overemphasizing or making mountains out of molehills, but it’s my blog and my story, so I’m telling it how I want.

Now I’m ready to start sharing my thoughts, from the pedantic to the slightly profound, again.

Changing locations: The positive takeaway

So I can make the formal announcement here:

Due to a variety of complex, but valid reasons, I have left Ayacucho to start working closely with the Joining Hands Network and Bridge of Hope here in Lima. I’m still unpacking a few of those reasons, but suffice it to say the move was for the best and I’m highly excited for my new placement.

That being said, I want to talk a bit about what I took away from my work with CEDAP. I didn’t keep my frustration a secret, so if you’ve been reading, this is not much of a surprise.

It took quite a few conversations with Jed and Jenny, and with Tulia to arrive at this point. And to my surprise it was a relatively graceful exit from CEDAP. Tulia sat me down in her office and said that she understood the decision and hoped that I could be better utilized elsewhere, recognizing that the dynamics within CEDAP were not currently the best for a volunteer. She added that it was a joy having me on board and regretted that a more formal goodbye was not possible due to scheduling issues.

Also, we agreed that I could continue working for CEDAP remotely. I will be creating an outline for evaluations during the years to come, so that they can budget for the necessary infrastructure. This lack of resources truly held me back from performing an analysis of “the benefit with the program versus without the program,” which is a blatant request for a Randomized Control Trial (RCT).

Tulia had not heard of RCTs, but she was looking for a comparison of treatment against control. I think it’s brilliant that CEDAP is looking for that, unfortunately an RCT takes at least several months-worth of planning and oftentimes a year to execute. In the case of interventions with children it may take five or more years to get noticeable outcomes.

CEDAP has a lot of really fantastic programs going on: playgrounds for children in rural schools, nutritional supplements for preschoolers, agricultural production and gender equality workshops, and expansion of mountain reservoirs. An RCT to track the benefits of each of those would take at minimum a year and in the case of the playgrounds and nutritional supplements, at least five years.

So, I could not truthfully perform the evaluation they wanted.

Instead, I suggested to Tulia that I would write up a proposal for how to best implement an RCT for next year once they had properly budgeted for the necessary costs. I will provide them with the necessary surveys, ethical methodology and estimate of expected costs over the course of the year. Likewise, I will craft a survey app for use on a smartphone to reduce costs for paper and data entry. Then if they choose to implement an RCT, I will provide the necessary data analysis as part of my commitment to them.

I’m especially glad that I will be able to provide this assistance because I am disturbed by the power dynamics around development “evaluations.”

I recently reached out to Innovations for Poverty Action (IPA) to see if they might work with CEDAP in the years to come. IPA is an organization which coordinates economists to perform RCTs to evaluate various policy initiatives. They then report that information for use in determining the pros and cons of different development programs. In that sense, it’s a great idea. Economists getting together to create more knowledgeable development work.

Unfortunately, a friend who works with IPA said I should not expect a response. As he explained it, economists do not go evaluate existing projects, they get ideas and then find organizations to implement those ideas.

That is really frustrating. Jed explained to me a bit ago that part of Tulia’s pride was in having me, someone with academic experience in economics, working with a small organization like CEDAP. In Peru, there is a history of the upper class claiming academic superiority to the poor. It’s deep-seated, so my presence was meaningful, though they struggled to engage me.

The situation I described with development economists above seems to create a similar relationship between the academic elite and organizations on the ground. Mainly, CEDAP does not have knowledge of RCTs, nor do they have the infrastructure to just implement one without substantial planning. Yet, it is called the “golden standard” of development economics and causality.

I am frustrated that CEDAP can’t access this kind of analysis. So, I’ve realized that if possible I’d like to work to make RCTs more accessible to smaller organizations. Specifically, if I continue on the path of academic economics, I will create and maintain ties with smaller organizations in order to perform needed RCTs. Plus, I’d like to see what need there is for a non-profit that performs RCTs for organizations that cannot afford them.

Now all this being said, I am just unaware of such a non-profit or business. If any reader knows of one that exists, let me know. Not only will I explore career opportunities with them, I will also connect them with CEDAP.

Snail Mail is pretty great

A short post just to say that snail mail rocks. I got my first letter since arriving in Peru today from a church member, Pat Wheeler. It was so nice to read a message of support and get a small window into her life. Granted, that window was about a month old because standard rate snail mail moves to Peru fairly slowly, but still it was great to get that glimpse.

Mainly, it’s great to be reminded of the support I have in being here. There hasn’t been a lack of that, but getting it via some handwritten kindness was phenomenal.

So thank you Pat and anyone else who may have sent a letter that just hasn’t arrived yet!

Halloween: Importing traditions

So, Halloween happens here in Peru. It’s odd, but as October drew to a close, you saw more and more shops advertising for the holiday. They featured candy sales, special costumes that you could for your children, and on the day of Halloween some classic cotton webbing and hanging banners proclaiming “Happy Halloween” (really, in English, not Spanish. I think the market isn’t big enough yet to manufacture signs outside of English). There is a big push to celebrate Halloween.

Yet everyone I interact with is anti-Halloween or at least resistant. My host family thinks it is strange that it is in Peru and decided not to celebrate, stating that they are Christian. That cracked me up considering how critical Halloween was to my upbringing. The people I work with spoke about with mild disdain and dislike for the emphasis on scaring children. Mainly, they felt it took away from the Peruvian holidays during that time, Día de la Canción Criolla and Día de Todos Los Santos.

I don’t like the argument that Halloween is bad because it has bad traditions. The traditions are just traditions. Most of them are, of course, driven by a want to sell candy and costumes, not a pagan tradition about renewal of the Earth, which I’ve heard as one origin tale. Still, it’s just a holiday with traditions and that none of those are inherently bad.

I agree more with the disdain for the fact that Halloween steals attention from pre-established Peruvian traditions. That’s discouraging. Plus, there’s the uncomfortable level of western cultural hegemony.

Personally, I don’t much like importing traditions for the purpose of commercial sales. Essentially, Halloween was brought to the Peru from multinational corporations looking to create a new market. It’s an easy sell: free candy and silly costumes.

You can see the connection to multinationals on the television. The Disney and other kids’ channels frequently advertised the holiday by rebranding their logos and showing Halloween-themed episodes. Movie channels like HBO and Sony designed their month’s content around horror and fantastical plots.

I can’t fault the companies for wanting to do that. And I can’t fault people for wanting to celebrate. What I don’t understand though is how it’s all worked. I want out on Halloween night and kids were running around the plaza and downtown streets with their parents. They went from storefront to storefront gathering candy and even a few houses. This is evidence to the fact that the “giving out of candy” has not caught on yet. Instead, children and open-minded parents are driving this holiday.

I also saw some dancing, likely in connection to Día de la Canción Criolla, though it was largely attended by elderly instead of children. It’s evident that the cultural-change is intimately tied to age demographics.

Anyway, I wanted to just bring this all up. I don’t like that Halloween takes focus off of cultural holidays here, yet people have the right to abandon their culture. At the same time, I can’t ignore the economic-driven push for homogenization from major corporations. Honestly, I think the two can coexist, though I can see why corporations might resist that. And if people do not appreciate the invasion of a new tradition, I understand that. The point is, it’s odd and happening around the world.

This was likely for Día de la Canción Criolla.
This was likely for Día de la Canción Criolla.
That orange thing there? A pumpkin-candy bucket.
That orange thing there? A pumpkin-candy bucket.